Apparently, the student body thinks “demeaning costumes and parties” are “cool.” Thankfully, the Intercultural Affairs Council (IAC) distributed fliers this past Halloween weekend advising the Yale community that such getups and get-togethers are not, in fact, cool.
On behalf of tonight’s partygoers, thank you — we now know it is a poor idea to follow Prince Harry’s lead and don a Nazi uniform.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice a word absent from IAC’s flier that captures the gestalt of its obvious message: taste. In advocating its basic idea — dress with some class — the council beat around the bush. It couched an otherwise cogent thesis in unnecessary terms of diversity.
IAC’s self-censorship is emblematic of the multicultural moment in which we live. Alphabet soup committees repackage basic social norms into the stilted language of tolerance and then spoon feed them to us. We lose the concept of taste in the process.
You might ask, why care if multiculturalists like IAC use silly terms? Their message remains true — it’s generally bad to belittle others, no matter how you phrase it.
The answer, from whose lesson we could all stand to benefit: Multiculturalism’s over-seriousness alienates. It is demeaning — to use IAC’s own terminology — to be bludgeoned with basic lessons of civility and taste through leaflets that tell us how “cool” it is to be tolerant. A little levity and nuance, instead of faux-hipness, might make the same message more palatable.
The problem runs even deeper than just tone, though. When we replace taste with words like tolerance and respect, something dies in the process. Taste means policing ourselves to do what is right and wrong. No outside party defines it.
Instead, through taste, communities quietly encourage their members to conform to standards of decency. A Yale College in which students enforce their own conception of civility, rather than have it imposed from a higher authority, will be far more effective in creating the welcoming environment we know this place to be.
What is more, because of its commitment to tolerance of the other, IAC discourages a specific type of “demeaning” costumes — namely those outfits that viewers find offensive to their religious beliefs, sexual background, socioeconomic status or other politically correct labels. By criticizing only those getups that insult the observer, we forget another lesson of tastefulness: Some clothes demean the wearer. Cases in point include any skimpy costume sold at Party City.
A commitment to taste acknowledges a sense of perspective; we know being distasteful will not cease the Earth’s rotation, though it makes life less pleasant for some. In contrast, multiculturalism’s hyperbole neuters its own message. A tolerance-diversity mantra magnifies obnoxious behaviors like offensive costumes and rewards them with an underserved disproportionate response. By dignifying the occasional insensitive costume with a flood of preemptive literature, we shine attention on those costumes instead of letting them fade into obscurity. The end result is an atmosphere of over-sensitivity, which encourages us to brand too many costumed partygoers as homophobes or racists.
Are we all tasteful? By definition, no. We define our sense of taste in relation to others, and someone will always be the boor by comparison. And, even if taste is not relative, the Nazi-wearing Prince Harrys exist in every generation, by human nature. Some people cannot be taught taste, no matter how much we try. But the IAC flier is least likely to civilize those social boors. Who reading a table tent in a dining hall decides to change their ways? At the end of the day, we cannot fault the IAC for its misguided literature; they meant for the best. We can ask, though, for a little more faith in our taste.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.